02/24/2013 02:51 pm ET Updated Apr 26, 2013

Not Simply Unjust, Also Unconstitutional

In his State of the Union message this week, President Obama spoke of the need to improve education in order to grow our middle class. Since the founding of this country, a quality education has been seen as the great equalizer for all children. Yet we, as a nation and individual states, have struggled to provide equal opportunities for those most in need. On February 4, 2013, in the consolidated case of Edgewood I.S.D. v. Williams, state Judge John K. Dietz held the Texas school finance system unconstitutional for failing to provide equitable and adequate resources to school children across Texas. In his oral ruling from the bench, Judge Dietz stated "the miracle and promise of education is unlocking the potential of every child as you find them," and held that Texas's school funding system failed to realize this opportunity. Given the state's size and continued growth, this decision ought to be a matter of great concern across the nation.

Texas, like many other states across the country, cut its public education funding in the wake of the economic downturn. Yet states like Texas have set their educational finance systems up to fail by cutting taxes and relying on unstable, disparate sources of funding like local property taxes. To make matters worse, education cuts come at the same time that states are expanding testing and mandates, and adopting more rigorous standards. While no one can argue against higher standards, our schools cannot make due without the resources needed to help all children achieve those standards. Although money certainly is not the only answer, it plays a key role in developing, recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers as well as providing quality preschool and small class sizes -- especially for children of poverty and those learning English.

Edgewood is the sixth school funding case filed in Texas over the last 30 years. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) filed the first case in 1984, and the central claim in that case was the state's failure to provide equal access to sufficient resources for children in property-poor districts. The Texas Supreme Court responded favorably, holding that "children who live in poor districts and children who live in rich districts must be afforded a substantially equal opportunity to have access to educational funds." It took the Texas Legislature three tries before the Texas Supreme Court finally found the system minimally constitutional in 1995. For well over half a century, the legislature has never willingly provided equal opportunities for all school children, and once again, parents and school districts have turned to the courts for relief.

In the most recent case, more than 70 witnesses testified over a three-month period, with several thousand exhibits. Teachers, parents, superintendents, and state and national experts testified about the shortcomings of the Texas school system. The evidence detailed significant deficiencies for the neediest children. The highest-wealth school districts continued to access over $1,400 more per student while taxing at lower rates than the lowest-wealth districts. After eight years of testing under the previous state standardized exams, nearly one-third of low-income students failed to meet the minimum standard on at least one test. Under the new, even more rigorous STAAR test, one-half of students failed to meet the minimum phase-in standard -- and that is only after the administration of five high-stakes end-of-course exams. Ten more such exams are yet to come. Attrition rates remain above 25 percent for low-income and African American and Latino students. And with the $5.4 billion in cuts during the last session came fewer teachers and higher class sizes, cuts to already underfunded preschool and English-learning programs, and reductions to interventions and gifted and talented programs.

The Texas courts have not been alone in finding the state derelict of its constitutional duty to provide a quality education to all children. Over the past two years, courts in Colorado, Kansas, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Washington have also held states liable for not providing equitable and adequate funds in the face of budget cuts. To be clear, it is not an easy task for states to determine an adequate level of resources for schools. But where there is virtually no evidence of legislatures considering the needs of its most vulnerable children and the cost of successful intervention programs to meet the needs of all students, the case against the states is much easier.

Perhaps most poignant among Judge Dietz's words was his noting that we tend to see children of poverty in terms of deficits and wonder how they are ever going to succeed. He mentioned the need to shift our focus to their tremendous potential and to giving them an avenue to succeed. With over three million of the five million students in Texas public schools now identified as low-income, and similar growth in many states across the country, this approach is not only important for those students and their families to break the cycle of poverty, but also for the greater good of state and national economies that will benefit from a well-educated population.

As Ms. Yolanda Canales, a low-income mother of children attending property-poor schools in Pasadena, Texas, testified, "I just want fairness; equal opportunities for my children as well, regardless of the neighborhood we live in." If this is too much to ask from our state legislatures, will it be too much to ask from our courts? Or from our society? Our answer will determine our collective future.